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American Beginnings: 1492-1690
Topic: ContactTopic: ExplorationTopic: SettlementTopic: PermanenceTopic: Power
Topic: Exploration
Toolbox Overview: American Beginnings: 1492-1690
Resource Menu: Exploration
Text 1. Into the Interior: The Spanish
Text 2. Into the Interior: The French
Text 3. Northwest Passage: The British
Text 4. Illustrating the New World (Pt. II)
Text 5. Catching Up: The British
Text 6. Failed Colonies
Text 7. The Slave Trade

Reading Guide
Guinea propria, 1743 (detail)
Guinea propria, 1743, detail
The Slave Trade
- Portuguese: Accounts of the capture of west Africans, ca. 1450 (PDF)
- English: A sailor's account of slave trafficking, 1567
- Spanish: A priest's condemnation of the slave trade, 1587
- Map (zoomable): West Africa, 1743 (Guinea propia)

We include the Atlantic slave trade here since its beginnings in the 1400s were as much part of the European breakout into the Atlantic Ocean as were the first voyages to North America. And, of course, the result of the west African explorations was the transport of hundreds of thousands of Africans to North America over four centuries. In addition, the accounts of African exploration and slave captures reflect the same encounter with the new and strange. A Portuguese seaman describes the "marvellous sight" of captives gathered on the African shore and recounts how other Africans "marvelled at the sight" of their ship. A English sailor is awed by the Africans' skill in capturing the "sea-horses" (hippos) that surround their ships. But the marvels give way to matter-of-fact accounts of slave trafficking (Hortop) and tracts on the immorality of slavery (Mercado).

The date we recognize for the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in Virginia is 1619, but the first recorded arrival in North America occurred 117 years earlier in 1502 when Juan de Córdoba sent several of his black slaves from Spain to Hispaniola. In 1517 the first slaves sent directly from Africa arrived to do forced labor on the Spanish plantations and mines in the Caribbean islands. As the Native Americans enslaved by the Spanish died by the thousands from overwork and disease, more Africans were captured and shipped to replace them. The Atlantic slave trade was on. It remained a critical and brutal element of the Spanish and English economies in North America for over four centuries. (The last nation in the western hemisphere to abolish slavery was Brazil in 1888). Here we read three documents of the early slave trade that you will find reminiscent of the exploration narratives in this section.
  • GOMES EANNES DE AZURARA. A Portuguese chronicler and archivist, Azurara compiled accounts of the earliest Portuguese voyages along the coast of West Africa in the 1400s (where he lived himself for a year). These two excerpts describe the capture and "division" of Africans, including "the first to be taken by Christians in their own land."
    [Azurara, The Chronicle of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea, ca. 1450]

  • JOB HORTOP. An English sailor in the 1560s, Hortop joined the African expeditions of Sir John Hawkins, the first Englishman to join the Atlantic slave trade. In his memoir he blandly describes the capture of five hundred Africans "for traffick of the West Indies," in contrast to Azurara's emotive account of the same experience two centuries earlier.
    [Hortop, The Travailes of an English Man . . . , 1591]

  • TOMÁS DE MERCADO. A Spanish priest and economist in Mexico in the mid 1500s, Mercado condemned the slave trade for its human and political consequences, dehumanizing the Africans as well as the Europeans who competed to capture them.
    [Mercado, Practices and Contracts of Merchants, 1587]
Note the variety of tone and implied commentary in these selections, all written years before the first African slaves arrived in the present-day United States. The 1743 map of West Africa should be studied for its illustrations as well as its geographic interpretation of the slave trade. (6 pages, excluding the map.)

Discussion questions
  1. How do the authors interpret the slave trade as a human, political, or economic institution?
  2. What is "right" or "wrong" in their estimation about the capture and sale of Africans?
  3. Compare the vehicles for these descriptions—an official chronicle, a scholarly essay, a personal memoir.
  4. Compare the European-African encounters with the European-Indian encounters.

Topic Framing Questions
  •  What motivated the Europeans' explorations? What were they looking for?
  •  What led them to deem an expedition a failure or success?
  •  How did the Europeans interpret the natural world they encountered?
  •  How did their experience of the New World comport with their expectations?
  •  How did the relationships of Europeans and Native Americans change after their initial encounters?
  •  What did the "New World" signify to Europe in 1550? in 1600?

Azurara:  2
Mercado:  2
Hortop:  2
 6 pages, excluding the map
Supplemental Sites
Captive Passage: The Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Making of the Americas, from The Mariners' Museum, Virginia

"The Transatlantic Slave Trade" from In Motion: The African American Migration Experience (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture)

The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record, image collection from the University of Virginia Library

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

Azurara: National Humanities Center
Mercado: Digital History
Hortop: History Matters
Map: Library of Congress

Image: Homann Hereditors, map of west Africa entitled Guinea propia, nec non Nigritiae vel Terrae Nigrorum maxima pars, 1743, detail. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Toolbox: American Beginnings: 1492-1690
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